Review: “The Dating Bender” by Christina Julian

A review by Amanda.

Samantha Serrano is a twentysomething divorcee whose life has gone off the rails. Raised in the Catholic faith by cruel and hypercritical parents, Sam has been so sheltered from the dating world that she leaps into marriage just to get out from under her parents’ thumbs. Unsurprisingly, her marriage loses its newlywed bliss almost immediately. Still, Sam tries to make it work for more than a year before asking for a divorce, much to her parents’ disappointment (despite the fact that they disapproved of the marriage in the first place). Now, on the advice of a friend and mentor, Sam agrees to give the dating world a spin. First, she has to overcome years of guilt and shame regarding sex, and then she has to figure out exactly what it is that she wants. This is the story of one woman’s journey to a better understanding of her needs and desires, complete with wacky mishaps and unexpected discoveries along the way.

Samantha is a contradiction of a character. On the one hand, her naivete about relationships occasionally borders on the ridiculous. She constantly references popular magazines in regards to fashion, makeup, and relationship advice. She takes the word of relative strangers at face value and seems to have some trouble maintaining female friendships with any depth. On the other hand, she also seems to have a great mind for business and achieves various successes in a male-dominated field. This aspect of her character is unfortunately glossed over and mostly serves as a vehicle for her sexual adventures. While the stories of her dating experiences are both entertaining and cringey, the lack of development in other areas of her life throughout the majority of the book gives the story a shallow feel. A little more backstory for Sam as well as the supporting characters would have gone a long way. A few extra details, such as how she met her ex-husband, anecdotes from her childhood (besides her parents’ cruelty), or about her friendships with women would have filled out the story quite nicely. As it is, Sam evokes rotating feelings of sympathy, frustration, and bemusement. Readers may find themselves rooting for her to gain independence and maturity, rather than hoping that she finds true love and a fairy tale happy ending.

As Sam works through her Catholic guilt and searches for some new sexual experiences, she has her ups and downs. She makes mistakes and learns from them, has some great sex, and makes a fool of herself on multiple occasions. There is nothing shameful about women’s sexual desires and more stories about women gaining and enjoying sexual freedom are necessary, and appreciated. The sex scenes are semi-graphic.

This book is a quick and casual read for those in need of a romance with an awkwardly funny protagonist.

My rating: 3/5 stars.

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Review: “Bring Her Home” by David Bell

Review: "Bring Her Home" by David Bell

A review by Amanda.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Tragedy has struck the small town of Jakesville. Fifteen-year-old Summer and her best friend Haley, who has been missing for two days, were found in a local park. Both girls had been severely beaten beyond recognition and only Summer is still clinging to life. Summer’s mother died a year and a half before and her father, Bill, has been struggling to raise his only child on his own. Relief that she has been found alive is mixed with anger at whoever has done this horrible crime, and guilt over mistakes he has made as a parent. The investigation into the girls’ disappearance has uncovered some surprising and troubling details about things that shake Bill to his core, and lead to more questions than answers.

Bill Price appears to be an average middle-aged man who has been thrown into some extraordinary and tragic circumstances. He is overcome with grief, shock, and occasional bouts of rage, and has some secrets of his own that he’d prefer to keep buried. His sister Paige is his only real confidante as he tries to find the truth about what happened to Summer on his own. The beleaguered lead detective, Detective Hawkins, has his work cut out for him with Bill’s attempts to find the person responsible alternately hindering and helping the investigation.

The story is told exclusively from Bill’s perspective, so readers only know what he knows as the investigation unfolds. Bill is not the most sympathetic of characters; at times he is downright unlikeable in spite of the circumstances. Readers will be drawn in through the mystery and the unexpected twists and supporting characters will keep them engaged. Getting to know Summer, Paige, and Bill’s late wife Julia, albeit through Bill’s eyes, gives the book depth and warmth and gives readers characters to connect with and root for. Aside from the unlikeability of the main character, the story is well written and intriguing. The unpredictable plot twists are a pleasant surprise amidst the oversaturated mystery genre. Violence and strong allusions to sexual assault are mentioned but not graphically described.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: “The Smoke Thief” by Shana Abé

Review: “The Smoke Thief” by Shana Abé

A review by Vanessa.

This book was one from my personal library of favorites purchased some time ago. Always nice to go back and read a favorite.

Rue is a very good thief. She moves with impunity throughout 18th century London, because of course, no one would suspect a woman of being able to pull off such daring jewel heists as have been attributed to the infamous “Smoke Thief.” What the world at large does not know about the thief or the lady, is that she is something even more than anyone could suspect… she is drakon. They are a race unto themselves, hiding in the world of man as aristocracy, able to Turn to a form of smoke and mist, and then to their true dragon form at will. But Rue was not born into the welcoming embrace of the full-blooded family. She was born Clarissa Rue Hawthorne, a dark haired half-blood outsider within the world of her fair-haired and inhumanly beautiful tribe, including the dashingly handsome young heir. On the morning of her 17th birthday, Rue took her own fate into her hands and faked her death so that she could leave her tribe behind and make her own life.

Christoff, the Marquess of Langford, is the Alpha. He was a bored young rake, but now he is a blindingly handsome and commanding man with his father’s title; and a real problem on his hands. The Smoke Thief is gadding about London, presenting a threat of exposure leaving stories about a thief who can transform to smoke. So he lures the thief out with a display of the Langford diamond and to his surprise he finds… Rue. A female. One who can Turn, as no other female has been able to for the last four generations. Her ability makes her the female Alpha, and by the laws of their tribe they are mates, but it’s her strength and beauty that make Kit want her for his own; before someone else can claim her. Rue doesn’t want a forced marriage of obligation based on tribe law. The Langford diamond has been taken by someone, and she knows who, so she works a plan to stay free of Lord Langford in exchange for helping to find it. But Kit has a plan of his own, and he is not above seducing Rue into his way of thinking. Can the famed Smoke Thief escape with her heart?

This book and series are one of my favorites, and I’m quite happy to have a reason to re-read. Not only because the storyline is fantastic, and the world building is impressive, but Shana Abé’s writing is just beautiful as well. Even the prologue is poetically and starkly beautiful, right from the beginning.  Her word choice and the flow of her prose is just masterful, and a great pleasure to read. Add to that her strength in creating dramatic, multi-faceted characters and you will see why I couldn’t put the book down. This series is an interesting mix of historical, and fantastical, where a race of dragons live their lives in 18th century London. The ancient history of their people comes into play as well within this book and throughout the series, and it never disappoints. Abé is amazing at weaving together all the best aspects of a great historical romantic fiction with the specific fascination that fantastic, magical, and legendary creatures bring to any story. I would highly recommend this book and the entire series to any readers. The romance is the main focus of the stories, but it is one among many great aspects, and it is utterly seductive in all the best ways. Worth the read, and the re-read.

My rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: “Bannerless” by Carrie Vaughn

A review by Amanda.

I read this book for free as part of the Prime First program, offered to those with Amazon Prime memberships.

Bannerless is a post-apocalyptic tale, set along the west coast one hundred years after the Fall of civilization as we know it. Communities have been formed, run by committees, and populated with people who know the value of hard work and family. Several family units live together in households, working together to make their household prosperous. Every household works for the good of the community, with quotas to fill. Intentionally surpassing quotas and hoarding goods is illegal. Most technology has been forgotten, in favor of a precious few that would make rebuilding easier. One such item was the birth control implant. Households must earn banners to show that they can provide for a child. If someone has a child without a banner, they and their entire household will face grave consequences.

Enid is a twenty seven year old woman who has just started a household with three others. She works as an investigator, traveling to different communities as needed to settle disputes and investigate reports of bannerless pregnancies and suspicious deaths. Investigators also assign punishments as they see fit, and are looked upon with fear and wariness. Nevertheless, Enid is proud of her position and enjoys the travel as much as enforcing the laws, ensuring that everything is fair and just. When she and her partner, Tomas, get a message regarding a suspicious death in a nearby town, she is eager to get down to business. Upon arrival, however, things are clearly not what they seem and Enid’s job may be harder than she had imagined.

The idea of a post-apocalyptic world is not a new one but this author brought interesting elements into an established genre and made it feel new. The idea of earning the right to have children is also not a new idea but it is intriguing when combined with other aspects of the world building. Enid is a solid character, devout in her beliefs. She believes strongly in doing whatever needs to be done to keep things fair and balanced for everyone. The book goes back and forth between the present and Enid’s past, leading to the mystery that starts the story.

Although this book had potential, it was a bit of a disappointing read. Enid, who is our protagonist and narrator, is not a deep character. She is predictable, even during exciting moments. The majority of the supporting characters are even more shallow and less interesting. The plot is mediocre, with the mystery being the only thing propelling it forward. There are a few surprises that may keep a reader interested, and world the author has built is worth more exploration, but the overall story is mediocre.

The author has an urban fantasy series, Kitty and the Midnight Hour, which I greatly enjoy. She also has several fantasy standalones, including Steel, Voices of Dragons, and Discord’s Apple, which I highly recommend.

My rating: 3/5 stars.

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Review: “Stillhouse Lake (Stillhouse Lake #1)” by Rachel Caine

Review- Stillhouse Lake (Stillhouse Lake #1) by Rachel Caine

A review by Amanda.

I read this book for free as part of the Prime First program, offered to those with Amazon Prime memberships.

Gwen Proctor, new resident of Norton, Tennessee, used to be Gina Royal. Gwen’s former life ended the day she, and the rest of the world, discovered that her husband was a serial killer. An accident revealed the truth about Melvin Royal and everything turned upside down for Gwen and her two children. Not everyone was satisfied with the outcome of his trial; many people believe that Gwen knew about her husband’s heinous activities, or that she was his accomplice. Vile threats against Gwen and her children prompted her to run and hide with them, changing identities as needed.

In the four years since the discovery, Gwen has trusted no one. She has taken precautions against potential threats and only accepts help when absolutely necessary. Her first and only priority is making sure her children are safe even when it causes friction. When she realizes that her paranoia is causing more problems than it solves, Gwen considers putting down roots and trusting a few people. But then a woman is murdered in a fashion eerily similar to her ex-husband’s M.O., she discovers that she can’t protect them from everything, and that sometimes it pays to stay vigilant.

This book was thrilling in the truest sense of the word. The author offered a unique twist in a classic thriller trope, and raised several excellent questions that aren’t typically considered in the mystery genre. The perspective from the family of a serial killer is a complex one full of horror, rage, betrayal, guilt, and plenty of doubt. The story is told exclusively from Gwen’s point of view in present tense. This added a sense of urgency that complemented the fast pace and made it impossible to stop turning pages. The story is character-driven, with the mystery acting as a catalyst rather than the main focus. Readers will be immediately drawn into Gwen’s life. She is intelligent, fierce, driven, and very human. She doubts her decisions, questions her parenting abilities, and makes mistakes. She appears cold at times but doesn’t apologize for it. Her kids, Lanny and Connor, are balanced precariously between childlike and adult attitudes tipping back and forth throughout the book. The other supporting characters are richly developed. Even those who appear sparingly give a feeling of being actual people with histories that extend beyond the pages of the book.

There are several fairly graphic descriptions of violence and death throughout the book, as well as mentions of torture and rape, but nothing that seems gratuitous.

Rachel Caine is also the author of the young adult series The Morganville Vampires, as well as The Great Library series, the Weather Warden series, and several others. Stillhouse Lake will be released on July 1st, 2017.

My rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: “The Gender Game” by Bella Forrest

Review: “The Gender Game” by Bella Forrest

A review by Vanessa.

I purchased this book from Amazon after an advertisement linked me to it and the synopsis seemed interesting.

In a world where your gender rules your fate, Violet Bates is happy being a woman born in Matrus, where the females rule the government. Violet doesn’t know what exactly caused the great war that brought such destruction upon them, but everyone knows why the surviving populace living in the only fertile mountainous area left, split into two different ruling factions. Men had proven to be monstrous, and violent, and had already brought about the eradication of their previous way of life. Women thought it was time for females to lead. The men disagreed, and the majority of the women left, with those men who agreed, to form a separate government in the flat lands beyond the toxic river. Peace reigns in Matrus; power and masculinity reigns in Patrus.

Even though 19-year-old Violet committed a crime that put her in jail until her upcoming 21st birthday, she was better off than in Patrus where women were no more than property. Still, when her brother was marked at an early age as unfit to reside in Matrus, she loved him too much to see him condemned and tried to smuggle him across the river. She failed, and he was taken away. Now all she wants is to get through the rest of her sentence without trouble. But fate has other plans when Violet’s scuffle with another prisoner ends in womanslaughter. The Queen has made Violet an offer: help with a secret mission to recover something that was stolen, or face death as punishment. The mission comes with a heavy price. Namely, marriage to the Queen’s spy in Patrus. If she succeeds, she might just get the chance to see her brother again. But first she must survive having no rights, and no bodily autonomy. Still, it’s not all bad. Violet has always loved the thrill of physical combat, which is outlawed in Matrus. But in Patrus she is drawn to a lean handsome fighter who serves as a warden for the government her new scientist husband works for. Things just aren’t what they seemed to her before, and she finds herself torn between her mission and her heart.

The classic futuristic dystopian genre gets an interesting twist in this book. Focusing on the gender dichotomy as the source of the main conflict is an all too familiarly painful, and eerily possible, future. The turns the story takes are expertly executed, and will definitely keep the reader engaged. Violet, the main character, is a highly relatable lead to the story. Her personal journey is particularly captivating, as she discovers more about the world outside of her own experience. A rather large flaw in the world building, however, is the complete lack of acknowledgment of what happens to those who would be transgendered, non-gendered, or outside of the societal expectations for sexual orientation. Considering that this world is supposed to be the future fate of our own world, it is insanely disappointing that such a large part of humanity is simply not addressed. I have to hope that the great potential for what could have been a fascinating conflict within this world will be covered in future books. That being said, it has been a very long time since a book has actually kept me up all night to finish it. And though the prose could be just a little bit stiff at times, it flowed just right in all the places that mattered the most; the first moments of Violet’s real self-discovery, the height of the romantic tension, and the shocking twist of the story’s climax. I will definitely continue on in this series.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars.

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Review: “The Butterfly Project” by Emma Scott

Review- The Butterfly Project by Emma Scott

A review by Amanda.

Zelda Rossi is a mess. She has come to New York to meet with publishers about her graphic novel, Mother May I, but things are not going the way she had hoped. She is at her wit’s end when she stops in at Giovanni’s Italian restaurant for a last minute dinner. There, she meets Beckett Copeland, a busboy at the restaurant, who might be as much of a mess as she is. He also might be able to help her where no one else can. Both Zelda and Beckett have tragedies in their pasts. Zelda is trying to run from hers, while Beckett punishes himself, but perhaps they can help each other find some normalcy.

This is a story with an abundance of heart. Zelda is a talented artist who uses her art to heal. She has a prickly exterior that keeps everyone at a distance, but it hides a generous spirit and loving heart. She does her best to push past the fear and guilt that she’s lived with for ten years, not realizing that all she’s actually doing is making things worse. Beckett also lives with guilt and anguish over a tragic mistake, which he believes can never be forgiven. He works hard and looks out for his friends, avoiding any deeper connections. These two souls are drawn together in a serendipitous moment that could change both if their lives if they’ll let it.

The characters are well-rounded, fully developed people, including supporting characters. They have faults and virtues, they make mistakes, they freak out. The plot is well paced throughout and relies on the strength of the characters to keep readers interested, rather than fast-paced action or surprise twists. There are examples of Zelda’s art sprinkled here and there, and it adds another dimension to the story. This is a contemporary NA romance, with some salty language and steamy sex scenes. There is also some talk of drug use and criminal activity, light descriptions of traumatic events, and realistic depictions of panic attacks.

The author has several other books, which I will definitely be checking out, including the Full Tilt duet.

My rating: 4.5/5 stars.

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